Friends of the Bitterroot

FOB Logo
Bitteroot Mountains
Bitterroot Mountains
Bitteroot Mountains
Bitterroot Mountains

What is Happening to the Bitterroot?

Are we letting a few special interests destroy the things we love in this valley?

Written by Stewart Brandborg - Bitterrooters for Planning

Increasing numbers of people are moving here each year because of our beautiful setting -- the open space of our farm and ranch lands, our clean, free flowing rivers and mountain streams, our outdoor recreation with opportunities to enjoy incomparable mountain scenery, fishing, hunting, wildlife, forests and wilderness. For them this is the last best place, where they come to escape the crowding and congestion of urban areas with their polluted air, water and landscapes. They move here to experience a quality of life that can be found in few other places. Because of this, we are the fastest growing county in Montana.

This brings reality to those of us who have had the good fortune to live here through the years: homes and the necessary accommodations of hundreds of new residents in our valley must be provided within policies that protect the property rights of those who are already here, and without destroying what we value.

Most people acknowledge that growth is here! It is also accepted that growth can be accommodated through proper planning under an effective Growth Policy that will guide us in doing the job without sacrificing the setting of our valley.

Evaluation of our planning crisis" can best be provided by those groups who have unsuccessfully opposed commissioner-approved developments in their neighborhoods. Over the years, ours has become a saga of unplanned, unguided, chaotic subdivision development driven by developers. Our three Ravalli County Commissioners have overridden the testimonials of neighborhood and planning groups who have sought the expertise of hydrologists, engineers, attorneys and others in futile efforts to protect their homes, their way of life and their private property rights. Pleas of neighbors and advocates are given short shrift, despite testimonials that demonstrate losses in the value of homes and properties; the drying up of wells; the short and long-term impacts of ground water contamination from too many septic systems; life threatening road hazards and needs for road dust abatement; loss of prime agricultural lands and serious impacts on stream flows, wildlife and fisheries.

Expert testimony -- at a cost of thousands of dollars to neighborhood and planning groups -- has been overridden by the three commissioners and the majority of the eleven-member County Planning Board, over half of whom are either developers, realtors, or have direct ties to development interests. Through their appointments, the commissioners have stacked this board, ignoring applications of capable candidates who are free of ties to development entities.

Those who have participated in the county's planning process and subdivision reviews confront the fact that procedures for protection of the public interest have broken down, that they simply do not serve any interest but that of developers and the small group of realtors who are shortsighted. Individuals, neighborhood groups and our organizations which support orderly development and protection of their private interests have no recourse this side of expensive lawsuits to counter the Commissioners' violations of law and established regulations. Dozens of subdivisions have been approved by the Commissioners in the last two years. Fewer than two percent have been rejected. Contributing to this, the professional county planning office staff, appointed by the Commissioners, has recommended approval of nearly every subdivision.

Frequent violations of road safety, dust abatement and other standards (set by law and/or county regulation) are allowed under a recently adopted variance procedure that gives open season to the developer. This has been of particular concern where the potential for life threatening road hazards has been documented. Only token cost share payments have been collected by the Commissioners for the maintenance and reconstruction of roads that access subdivisions. As required by a 1997 regulation, these represent tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer subsidy to developers.

Another ploy that clears the way for poorly conceived subdivision proposals is the Commissioners' granting of conditions which are rarely enforced. There is no effective follow-up procedure to assure compliance with legal requirements for roads, safety and the protection of private property rights.

It is people in impacted neighborhoods and county taxpayers who absorb the brunt of the costs for construction and maintenance of roads; fire, police and other emergency services; support of our schools and other infrastructure. Our County Commissioners allow developers to get away with occasional token fees for schools or fire districts with no impact payments to offset tremendous costs paid by county taxpayers. Only if people of the Bitterroot apply pressure on each Commissioner can there be any hope of change that will bring the needed overhaul in our planning programs -- endless pressure, endlessly applied! If they fail to respond as dozens of approved illegal subdivisions continue to take their toll on the valley, the only recourse of people is to elect their replacements, men and women who will reconstitute these programs for the benefit of the public.

We ask that every person who cares about the valley and its protection let his/her voice be heard by the Commissioners. Standing aside in silence, withdrawal and retreat from this controversy leaves the door open to the small minority who are willing to take away this last best place for their personal profit.